David Bowie’s Artful Death

On January 7, 2016, about a week before his death, David Bowie released his final music video, “Lazarus.” The similarities between Donne’s death shroud portrait and Bowie’s video are unmistakable as both highlight the artists’ engagements with mortality and creation of an artful death. In this song and video, and throughout his final album, ★, Bowie’s use of symbols associated with early modern death rituals as well as the communal aspects of his parting gift to fans reveal possibilities for rediscovering the art of dying for our modern age.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey, David Bowie and Romanticism, p. 258

I have my own memories of the release of Bowie’s Lazarus video. I remembered I’d first caught it not long after its initial release, just hours. I remember thinking to myself, wryly but pleased, “He did it again. Weirded us all out.” Not just the visuals. The music too. I’d never heard anything quite like it. Then I checked the video again about 24 hours after it was released and was very, very pleased again: the video had received over 1 million views in a little more than 24 hours. It was a hit.

And then I heard he died, and then I watched the video again, seeing it differently this time. He knew. And then, before the next day had passed, I committed to this book. Bowie had been on my radar since my teenage years, and especially since I saw him perform live on Saturday Night Live in December 1979, when I was 15. But I didn’t buy many of his albums. I picked up his Singles Collection on CD within a couple years of its release in 1993 and loved it. Then I picked up another CD at a flea market, I think Reality, overpriced because it was “rare,” sometime after 2008. But then he died, and now I have all of his studio albums on vinyl and a nice stack of his CDs. And now I have this book, David Bowie and Romanticism.

What struck me the most about Bowie’s loss was the loss of his genius and humanity at the beginning of a year in which Trump’s star started to rise. It seemed so unfair–such a horrible tradeoff, like trading in a Ferrari for a brown Matchbox sedan. Plus it was the loss of David Bowie. The world lost some of its color that day; I knew it could come back, but I didn’t know when it would.

A colorless world. His final album, Blackstar, ★, packaged black on black. Even the inner booklet is matte black with gloss black lyrics and images printed on it. But when you hold the outer sleeve up to the light, you see stars through the Blackstar cutout. Constellations. There’s little joy on this album. There’s bitterness, confusion, anger, betrayal. Death. But he took all of that and turned it into art. He wants us to see the constellations through all of that darkness.

Bowie reinvented himself musically once again on this album. I write about his musical transformation in my chapter on Bowie and jazz in the forthcoming collection Jazz and Literature (Routledge 2023), but I believe as much is communicated through the album art, as sparse as it is, and through the videos, as is communicated through its music and lyrics. It begs for visual interpretation. Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey’s “‘Blackstar’: David Bowie’s Twenty-First-Century Ars Moriendi,” chapter 11 of David Bowie and Romanticism, the book’s final chapter, does this work of visual interpretation. She interprets Bowie’s album and videos in the light of the ars moriendi tradition, or the early modern practice of an artful death which “encouraged individuals to thoughtfully and artfully plan for and practice their deaths” (pp. 257-8). She traces the loss and then rediscovery of this tradition in the Romantic era, particularly “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Just as Keats’s urn preserves eternally the memory of a moment, Bowie’s “Lazarus” video “re-envisions his history through objects that tell of his demise, while simultaneously reminding the viewers of his past and pointing toward his future as an object of memory” (p. 269).

Check out the iTunes playlist for David Bowie and Romanticism.

Lodine-Chaffey’s chapter is graceful and cathartic. You can read more in David Bowie and Romanticism. Order it from the Bookstore or have your local, college, or university library order it.

Jennifer Lillian Lodine-Chaffey is Assistant Professor of English, Department of English, Philosophy, and Modern Languages, Montana State University. She is the author of A Weak Woman in a Strong Battle: Women and Public Execution in Early Modern England (2022).

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